Newcastle, Tyne & Wear
Currently being refurbished by the Malhotra Group
30 Jan 2021
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Balmbra’s is a historic Newcastle watering hole, first opened in 1840 by a fellow named J Balmbra. He marketed himself as one of the most premium venues in the city, selling ‘highly-flavoured wines, foreign and British spirits, fine sparkling English and Scotch Ales, London and Dublin stout.’ Balmbra was a highly known figure in the city, being a founding member of the Licenced Victuallers Association and quarter-master of the Northumberland Yeoman Cavalry. His reputation allowed the bar to flourish.
At this point it was named the ‘Royal Music Saloon’, a first floor bar which was also named ‘The Wheatsheaf’ around the same time. During this point that Balmbra’s played host to Geordie Ridley, the songwriter whose ballad “Blaydon Races” is as well known as the Angel of the North and Pease Pudding. It was around 1862 when Ridley first performed at the bar, and his legacy has lasted ever since. Here’s an excerpt from the song, which mentions Balmbra’s directly:
“I took the bus from Balmbras
And she was heavy laden
Away we went along Collingwood Street
That's on the Road to Blaydon”
It’s still sung on the terraces of St. James, plastered all over Blaydon town centre, and traditional folk bands still sing it in pubs all over the area. The legacy of Balmbra’s cannot be understated.
Due to its popularity, landlords who owned the site after Balmbra, who passed in 1868 held nightly music events and extravaganzas throughout the 19th century. It was the centrepoint of evening entertainment on the Bigg Market for decades and was a mainstay on the Cloth Market until the latter stages of the 19th century.
Sadly, the original building set ablaze, and was demolished in 1899. Just before this point its purpose was entirely different, used as a billiard hall and restaurant for the more genteel types of the city.
The building was later reconstructed into its modern form, named the Carlton Hotel and also featured a billiards room. Through the years though there were various attempts to reinvent the bar and bring it back into popular use, though some were said to be little more than an imitation. In recent times however, the site is well known to revellers as the centre of the nightlife scene in Newcastle, and is remembered fondly for its beautiful architecture and vivid atmosphere. It is hoped this lives on through the redevelopment with the help of heritage associations.
The Ordnance Survey maps above illustrate the site of the music hall from the middle to the end of the 19th century. The cathedral is the stand out feature of this map which is dense in nature and features little detail of each building. It is worth noting that between the decades Manors Station is constructed, and the famous toilets on the Bigg Market were constructed in 1898. It's now a wine bar.
The 1921 edition featured little difference, though one notable feature is the addition of the course of Hadrian's Wall through the city, not too far from the Cloth Market over Collingwood Street.
Balmbra's Music Hall, 1964. This is the current building, with the earlier incarnation lost much earlier in 1899. To the right is the National Union of Tailors.
Credit: Newcastle Libraries
The original building can be seen here in 1890, named the Wheatsheaf Inn as it was the upper floor that became known as the music hall. Back then, it was the 'Oxford', playing host to many a famous name like Geordie Ridley in its heyday a few decades earlier.
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